You’ve worked hard to graduate from pharmacy school.
Now, even though the hard work is finished, the challenges are just beginning. Somehow, you have to begin the process of paying off your pharmacy student loans.
Given that the average pharmacy student accumulates about $160,000 worth of debt, the thought of paying it down can feel daunting. (Loan amounts are even higher for pharmacists who attended private schools.)
Although the six-figure starting salaries can help, you could be paying up to $2,000 a month to those loans (and half of that goes to interest). Over the life of the loan, you’ll repay much more than you originally borrowed.
The same is true for graduates who take advantage of forbearance while they complete residency programs. While forbearance programs do allow students to delay their loan payments, or to make smaller-than-scheduled payments, the loans still accumulate interest during the forbearance period.
The trick, then, is to determine your financial goals first. Learn everything you can about student loans and establish your unique priorities.
Then find a loan repayment plan that works for your situation and be intentional about repaying your debt.
Consider the following five options to manage your pharmacy school debt.
1. Take advantage of income-driven repayment plans.
Income-driven repayment plans adjust your monthly loan payments based on your discretionary income. If you’re struggling to afford your student loan payments, IDR plans can help.
Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE)
Pay As You Earn (PAYE)
Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR)
Income-Based Repayment (IBR)
The income-driven plans apply to eligible federal student loans, and they cap your loan payments at 10, 15, or 20 percent of your monthly discretionary income. As your income increases, your payments will likely increase.
They also extend your repayment terms beyond the life of your original loan, but they offer some opportunity for loan forgiveness once the life of the loan has expired.
2. Refinance your pharmacy student loans.
Student loans are difficult to repay because they constantly accrue interest. Over the life of your loans, you could pay tens of thousands of dollars in interest alone.
Loan refinancing allows you to work with a private lender that issues you a new loan with better terms. On high loan balances like the one pharmacists tend to carry, a single percentage point can save thousands of dollars over the life of the loan.
Private lenders offer fixed rate loans and variable rate loans, but because variable rate loans change with the market, they are a riskier option. They’re generally ideal for borrowers who intend to pay their debt quickly.
3. Adjust your repayment terms.
Refinancing your loans also allows you to change your repayment terms. Depending on your financial goals, you can shorten or lengthen the life of your loan.
A shorter term will help you eliminate debt quicker and pay less interest, but the resulting payments will be higher. A longer term will keep more money in your pocket, but it will extend your indebtedness and cost you more in interest.
Given that most pharmacists have higher-than-average starting incomes, you should easily qualify for refinancing if your credit is good.
4. Negotiate a signing bonus.
Some pharmacy positions offer generous signing bonuses in addition to higher-than-usual salaries. As you conduct your job search, watch for jobs that offer signing bonuses.
Even if you apply for a job that doesn’t expressly offer one, consider negotiating for a bonus once you receive an offer. Understand that the company offered you the job because you’re the right fit, and hiring managers expect some level of negotiation.
Use the bonus money to make a significant dent in your loan balances. Often lump-sum payments knock out a large amount of debt by quickly reducing the interest on a loan.
Understand, though, that bonuses often require a commitment to stay in a job for a set amount of time. Also, ensure that yours is an actual bonus rather than an advance that you’ll pay back over time.
5. Explore loan forgiveness.
Pharmacists willing to consider working in the public service sector may qualify for loan forgiveness programs.
The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program forgives federal student loans for pharmacists who have accumulated 10 years of service in a qualifying organization, and who have made 120 qualifying payments toward their loans.
PSLF qualifying employment includes government organizations (federal, state, local, or tribal) and not-for-profit organizations as well.
It is important that you apply for PSLF as soon as possible to ensure that you’re meeting the required payment demands to participate. Because many borrowers wait to apply, they often discover that they have not made qualifying payments. As a result, their applications are denied.
Additionally, the National Health Service Corps sponsors loan repayment programs for pharmacists who work in shortage areas for a predetermined period of time.
Finally, the U.S. Army offers loan repayment assistance for qualified candidates who agree to serve. The program may also include a bonus of $30,000 payable at the first duty station.
In the face of staggering amounts of debt, some pharmacists adopt a hands-off approach: they pay their debt payments without considering whether a better option exists.
They never stop to consider that they have options and that intentionally paying off their pharmacy loans will move them toward financial independence.
For new pharmacists, it’s absolutely easiest to begin now, before you become accustomed to the large pharmacy salary you’ll earn beyond graduation. Commit to continue living like a resident so you can focus on eliminating your loans.
You never know where your pharmacy career will take you. As more and more pharmacists seek passion in their work, they are reaching beyond traditional pharmacy jobs into positions that provide more than just income.
Keep your options open by moving yourself toward financial freedom. Eliminate your debt so you’ll never be strapped to an unfulfilling or unrewarding job.
You proved you’re capable of hard work when you graduated from pharmacy school. If you’re going to work hard for something, why not do it for yourself?
Alex is the Founder of The Happy PharmD. He loves anime, his family, and video games, but not in that order.